Sunday, November 28, 2010

Selected readings 11/28/10

Interesting reading and news items.

Please leave some comments that indicate which articles you find most interesting or that identify topics you would like to read about, and I will try to include more articles of a similar nature in the future

These items are also bookmarked at my Diigo account.

Bad seeds, bad science, and fairly black cats?
Geneticists have failed to remind the public what the word “genetic” actually means. Heritability implies that gene and environment work, or might be persuaded to work, together. Why, after all, are taxpayers spending money on the double helix if there is no hope of an environmental intervention—a drug, a change in lifestyle, or cancer surgery after the early diagnosis of a somatic mutation—to help those at risk from what they inherit? Everyone in the trade knows this although they fail to mention it except to their first-year undergraduate classes. Transcripts of their lectures should be sent out with every press release. [The Lancet, 10/23/10]

Cancer’s little helpers
No one would have predicted a decade ago that these microRNAs, as the hairpins are called, were involved in cancer, because no one even knew that they existed in people. Mere snippets of RNA — DNA’s underappreciated cousin — these micromolecules are about 22 chemical letters long. But their size belies their power. [Science News, 8/28/10]

Hogan’s holometer: Testing the hypothesis of a holographic universe
In 2008, Fermilab particle astrophysicist Craig Hogan made waves with a mind-boggling proposition: The 3D universe in which we appear to live is no more than a hologram. Now he is building the most precise clock of all time to directly measure whether our reality is an illusion. [Symmetry Breaking, 10/20/10]

The Brain That Changed Everything
When a surgeon cut into Henry Molaison's skull to treat him for epilepsy, he inadvertently created the most important brain-research subject of our time — a man who could no longer remember, who taught us everything we know about memory. Six decades later, another daring researcher is cutting into Henry's brain. Another revolution in brain science is about to begin. [Esquire, 10/25/10]

How Big is the Unobservable Universe?
Based on what we currently think about inflation, this means that the Universe is at least 10^(1030) times the size of our observable Universe! And good luck living long enough to even write that number down. ... All that we know, see, and observe is just one tiny region that slid down that hill fast enough to end inflation, but most of it just keeps on inflating forever and ever. [Starts with a Bang!, 10/27/10]

Revealing the galaxy’s dark side
“In our paper, we discussed a number of astrophysical possibilities for the origin of the signal, including a population of pulsars, cosmic ray interactions and emission from our galaxy's supermassive black hole,” notes Hooper. “And in the end, no combination of any astrophysical sources could give us the signal we’re seeing,” he adds. “Eventually we just got fed up and concluded there doesn’t seem to be a way to explain the signal except for one thing — we tried dark matter and it fit beautifully without any special bells or whistles.” [Science News, 11/20/10]

When Muons Collide
A new type of particle collider known as a muon collider considered a wild idea a decade ago is winning over skeptics as scientists find solutions to the machine's many technological challenges. [Symmetry, 10/1/10]

We all need (a little bit of) sex
Sex costs amazing amounts of time and energy. Just take birds of paradise touting their tails, stags jousting with their antlers or singles spending their weekends in loud and sweaty bars. Is sex really worth all the effort that we, sexual species, collectively put into it? [Scientific American, 11/2/10]

Glia: The new frontier in brain science
Glia, in contrast to neurons, are brain cells that do not generate electrical impulses, and there are a lot of them—85 percent of the cells in the brain. Yet, these cells have been largely neglected for 100 years. I call this new frontier of neuroscience "The Other Brain," because we are only now beginning to explore it. The new findings are expanding our concept of information processing in the brain. They are leading rapidly to new treatments for diseases ranging from spinal cord injury to brain cancer to chronic pain, and Alzheimer's disease. [Scientific American, 11/4/10]

Extra neutrino flavor could be bitter end to Standard Model
What seems to have caught everyone's attention is the suggestion that this might be evidence of what are called sterile neutrinos. Although regular neutrinos barely interact with matter, sterile neutrinos can only interact via gravity, which (if they exist) is what has allowed them to escape our detection to date. Since they'd also be heavier than the regular neutrinos, they would make good dark matter candidates. [Nobel Intent, 11/2/10]

The Neanderthal Romeo and Human Juliet hypothesis
Scientists have had trouble reconciling data from analyses of human mitochondrial DNA and the male Y chromosome. Analyses of human mitochondrial DNA indicate that we all share a common female ancestor 170,000 years ago. Analyses of the Y chromosome indicate that we share a common male ancestor 59,000 years ago. How can we account for the idea that our common grandmother is 111,000 years older than our common grandfather? [Neuroanthropology, 10/26/10]

An idle brain may be the self's workshop
As neuroscientists study the idle brain, some believe they are exploring a central mystery in human psychology: where and how our concept of "self" is created, maintained, altered and renewed. After all, though our minds may wander when in this mode, they rarely wander far from ourselves, as Mrazek's mealtime introspection makes plain. [Los Angeles Times, 8/30/10]

Determining 500th Alien Planet Will Be a Tricky Task
At NASA's last count, astronomers had confirmed the discovery of 494 planets around alien suns. There are signs of dozens more, if not hundreds, but it will take time to weed out which of the detections are actual worlds and which are merely false alarms. [, 11/11/10]

Tracking Viruses Back in Time
How long have viruses been around? No one knows. Scientists at Portland State University have begun taking the first steps toward answering this question. [Astrobiology, 9/6/10]

Can a 1960s Approach Unify Gravity with the Rest of Physics?
In July mathematicians and physicists met at the Banff International Research Station in Alberta, Canada, to discuss a return to the golden age of particle physics. They were harking back to the 1960s, when physicist Murray Gell-Mann realized that elementary particles could be grouped according to their masses, charges and other properties, falling into patterns that matched complex symmetrical mathematical structures known as Lie groups. [Scientific American, 9/7/10]

Neuroscience: Settling the great glia debate
The consequences of this 'gliotransmission' could be profound. The human brain contains roughly equal numbers of glia and neurons (about 85 billion of each), and any given astrocyte can make as many as 30,000 connections with cells around it. If glia are involved in signalling, processing in the brain turns out to be an order of magnitude more complex than previously expected, says Andrea Volterra, who studies astrocytes at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Neuroscientists, who have long focused on the neuron, he says, would have to revise everything. [Nature News, 11/10/10]

This Is Your Brain on Metaphors
Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. [New York Times, 11/14/10]

Tree or ring: the origin of complex cells
All complex life belongs to a single group called the eukaryotes, whose members, from humans to amoebas, share a common ancestry. Their cells are distinguished by having several internal compartments, including the nucleus, which shelters their precious DNA, and the mitochondria, which provide them with power. [Not Exactly Rocket Science, 9/12/10]

I am virus – animal genomes contain more fossil viruses than ever expected
Your closest fossils are inside you, scattered throughout your genome. They are the remains of ancient viruses, which shoved their genes among those of our ancestors. There they remained, turning into genetic fossils that still lurk in our genomes to this day. [Not Exactly Rocket Science, 11/18/10]

Effective Field Theory
"Effective field theory" is a technical term within quantum field theory, but it is associated with a more informal notion of extremely wide applicability. Namely: if we imagine dividing the world into "what happens at very short, microscopic distances" and "what happens at longer, macroscopic distances," then it is possible to consistently describe the macroscopic world without referring to (or even understanding) the microscopic world. [Cosmic Variance, 11/25/10]

Meet a superpartner at the LHC
Of the many ideas for new physics that can be tested at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), supersymmetry is one of the most promising. The theory proposes that each fundamental fermion particle has a heavier bosonic superpartner (and vice versa for each fundamental boson) and by doing so, offers an extension of the standard model of particle physics that fixes many of its problems. None of the known particles appear to be superpartners, however, which leads to the daunting conclusion that if supersymmetry is correct, there are more than twice as many fundamental particles as we thought, but we have only been left with the lightest partners; that is, supersymmetry is broken. [Physics, 11/22/10]

Mafia Wars
An increasing amount of data is showing that the cellular battle between pathogens and hosts needs much more than a simple military metaphor to describe it—think undercover infiltration, front organizations, and forced suicide. [The Scientist, 6/1/10]

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